If it weren't for a shallow pond of beady-eyed frogs, Somsak Chermoe – a shy ninth-grader here in northern Thailand – would be facing a future with few opportunities for making a living.
Instead, thanks to his school's effort to teach marketable skills, he's already focused on his first entrepreneurial foray: selling his critters at the local market, where he estimates they'll fetch as much as $2 per kilogram.
"Not many people raise frogs, so I think when I sell them I can make a lot of money," he says.
Raising the slippery amphibians, a common dish here, is among numerous vocational courses taught at Donchai Wittayakhom school. The effort is part of a national pilot program to prepare high school students for the workplace awaiting them when they graduate or – more likely – drop out.
School officials at Donchai say 80 percent of their 442 students leave after ninth grade to support their families. But with youth unemployment on the rise throughout Southeast Asia, young people looking for work are increasingly striking out.
The region isn't alone in that trend: Lacking skills and experience, about a third of the world's 1.1 billion young people (15-to-24 years old) either can't find work or find themselves in low-paying, dead-end jobs, according to a recent report by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Youth are most likely to be out of work in the Middle East and North Africa, the ILO found. Over the last decade, however, the biggest rise in joblessness came in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Last year, over 9.5 million young people in the region were out of work, up 85 percent since 1995. In worst-hit countries like the Philippines, 1 in 4 youth are jobless.
Such unemployment among the burgeoning ranks of young people in volatile regions can be a recipe for trouble, experts warn. In East Timor, which collapsed into anarchy earlier this year as armed gangs rampaged through its capital, only 30 percent of young people were estimated to be working at the time.
In recent decades, rapid growth tied to rising global trade has transformed much of Southeast Asia and spread new wealth across the region. But a spike in youth unemployment may prove harder to fix, as policymakers in the region struggle to create decent jobs for millions of school leavers – high school graduates or dropouts – entering the economy.
Behind these statistics are people like Tamapat Chermue, who left school two years ago after completing ninth grade. Since then, he's worked as a day laborer on construction sites and in a furniture factory, but has failed to find a permanent job or acquire any marketable skills. After a recent stint working in the capital, Bangkok, he moved back to his village in northern Thailand, where job opportunities are few and far between.
"Some of my friends finished high school, unlike me. But they are still only day laborers," says Tamapat, taking a break from watching a deafening TV show to slouch on a bamboo bench beside the village's only paved road.
Southeast Asia's surge in joblessness is partly due to the industrialization of the region that has led young people to turn their backs on agriculture.
Wages in urban areas easily outstrip the returns on smallholder crops. But in a downturn, young workers are often the first to be laid off, as many found during East Asia's 1997-98 financial crisis. Their lack of experience also makes them vulnerable when the economy picks up again.
"Economies are moving from agriculture to industry and higher value-added services.... If there's a need for higher value-added service industry jobs, youth need to be equipped with appropriate skills in order to take up these jobs. If not, you'll see unemployment rise," says Steven Kapsos, a labor economist at the ILO's regional office in Bangkok.
Across Southeast Asia, education is widely seen as a path to social and economic success. Spending on schools has boosted enrollment; Nearly 90 percent of children attend primary school in Thailand, and around one in four continue on to higher education. But labor experts say that many school leavers still lack both the skills that employers need, and the know-how to forge their own path as entrepreneurs in the informal sector.
"You need a bridge between the formal education system and the workplace. In high-income countries, people get that through part-time work and apprenticeships. But in Asia and the Pacific, there's a brutal break between the paternalism of secondary school and what young people face when they leave school," says Richard Curtain, an independent consultant on youth employment and poverty.
The pilot program that has helped Somsak raise his frogs may help provide such a bridge for him and his peers, who are learning to raise carp, bake Thai desserts, grow vegetables, and make handicrafts.
Under the program, school leavers get advice from local government officials on how to start their own business and can apply later to the school for loans from a revolving fund. Officials say the scheme gives young people an alternative to getting a job in the agricultural sector or migrating to the city for work, as well as an insight into the realities of the workplace.
"Even if they want to follow their parents who work in the fields, we encourage them to improve themselves," says principal Suban Thundorn.